If no one lives near a convenience store, can it truly be considered convenient?
New Haven planning boards are mulling over that Zen-like koan as they consider the merits of allowing a gas station and convenience store to open at 670 Ella T. Grasso Blvd., near the thoroughfare’s intersection with Boston Post Road.
Part of the question under consideration is whether New Haven should clamp down on mini-marts, and where those markets should be located.
The site was formerly Santa Fleet Services, where commercial vehicles have refueled since approximately 2001. A potential buyer seeks to open up the tanks to any driver, a relatively minor tweak in the customer base that shouldn’t prove controversial. The second ask, however, for a 1,200-square-foot mini-mart on the property has drawn heat from professional staff and one commissioner; a final vote is scheduled take place in September.
Located in the Upper Hill, where it’s surrounded by two cemeteries, a park and a river, the site doesn’t have a residential customer base nearby to justify a cut-out from the zoning ordinance, city planners maintain. The project’s backers, meanwhile, claim that it’s impractical to run a gas station without an attached mini-mart. They argue that homeowners less than half a mile away will drive over to shop for canned goods, milk and baby products.
The project is weaving its way through the city’s multi-step review process. The applicant made his first pitch to the Zoning Board of Appeals at its most recent monthly meeting in mid-July, before it was looked over by the City Plan Commission the following night. The latter commission approved its coastal permit (despite some grumblings about the project’s overall merits), before kicking it back to the zoning board for a vote at its next meeting on a special exception for the gas station, a variance for the convenience store and a final sign-off on the project’s coastal site plan.
At the zoning hearing at 200 Orange St., attorney Tim Yolen argued that convenience stores are “almost necessary” to running a successful gas station.
“Over the weekend, I took the opportunity to drive around New Haven looking at any number of gas stations. It’s very hard to find any gas station in any place without a convenience store attached to it,” he said, on behalf of owner RM Associates and applicant Sardar LLC. He added that, because Santa Fleet Services operated on a subscription model without an attendant present, some type of structure would be necessary for a cashier.
But as an East Rock homeowner who wanted to move his aunt into an in-law unit also found out that same evening, the zoning board generally doesn’t consider a property-owner’s ability to make more money to be a land-based “hardship” worthy of a variance.
As Tom Talbot, the deputy zoning director, wrote in a report recommending the BZA deny the mini-mart’s application for a variance, the zoning ordinance doesn’t permit exceptions just because something might be a good fit. Rather, a variance is allowed only when all the zone’s permitted uses just don’t fit due to some peculiarity at that address. Because the applicant could run a gas station at the site — a use that is permitted in the IL zone, which is generally industrial but allows for commercial too — they couldn’t prove a hardship.
“The simple fact that the applicant is asking to conduct a use on the property which is permitted by Special Exception would seem to belie any claim that the zoning regulations allow for no reasonable use of that property,” Talbot wrote. “Apparently the underlying element of hardship is related to the idea that a free standing gasoline station is not a viable business model in an IL district without a convenience store. Staff is unconvinced.”
Yolen tried one other approach to win over the board members’ support, portraying the mini-mart as a boon to the neighborhood. He said that customers would drop by for milk, baby formula and diapers, from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m.
“This is small [and] unobtrusive, and I believe it would benefit the community [in the Hill] and not just the people who are driving through for gasoline,” he said. “I hope that this board would understand the value of having a small convenience store on a very large piece of property, and I would ask this board to consider and determine whether this is in fact the best interest of that area.”
Talbot wasn’t buying it. “What is certain, in staff’s view, is the inaccurate representation of the store as an accessory use,” he wrote. All the items Yolen listed “have never been uses accessory to gasoline sales,” Talbot added, arguing that what’s typical is to sell items related to the car or small household and personal items.
Is this a case of just being a stickler for the rules? Talbot argued that as mini-marts pop up across the Elm City, planning staff need to clamp down.
“The proliferation of convenience stores in all portions of the city impacts the viability of such stores in areas where they are most appropriate,” he said. “Convenience stores are (and should be) located in areas with some adjacency to residential areas.”
The following night, City Plan Commissioner Leslie Radcliffe (who lives in the neighborhood) offered a different rationale for why convenience stores shouldn’t open untethered from a neighborhood: If residents aren’t coming in to shop for essentials, the likely customers will be youth buying cigarettes and rolling papers or using the lot as a pit stop for drag racing their cars or motorbikes down the boulevard.
While her four colleagues voted to approve the coastal plan for managing underground tanks, gas lines and stormwater infrastructure near West River, Radcliffe chose to abstain. She said she plans to listen to the applicant’s testimony at the zoning board — they didn’t show up at City Plan — and testify based on what she hears.
The next BZA meeting is scheduled take place on Sept. 12.